Stuck in a limbo at Libya’s borders, sub-Saharan African refugees fleeing the Libyan conflict have been abandoned by the EU, according to an Amnesty International report. It could have grave consequences – for the refugees and for Europe.
Weeks after the Libyan uprising broke out earlier this year, the Saloum border post, a sprawling, militarised complex hosting layers of security roadblocks between Libya and Egypt, was crammed with foreign nationals fleeing the conflict in Libya.
In a cheerless, dilapidated waiting room at Saloum, hastily-tacked notices on the walls urged returning foreign nationals – mostly from South-east and South Asian countries – to contact their embassy representatives in Cairo.
Oil-rich Libya had between 1.5 million and 2.5 million foreign nationals from a number of African and Asian countries, most of whom fled – or attempted to flee – when the Libyan uprising began in February.
But not all the fleeing foreigners made it home.
While most expatriates returned to their own countries, thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers were stuck in the sandy, no-man’s land near Libya’s eastern border with Egypt as well as the western Libyan border with Tunisia.
More than six months later, these hapless refugees – mostly from conflict and insurgency-hit African countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia – are still stranded at Libya’s borders in grim, makeshift shelters, denied mobility and the ability to work or even, it seems, to hope.
Now, a new report by the London-based Amnesty International has slammed the European Union for “shamefully” failing to help thousands of refugees stranded near Libya’s borders.
In a report titled, “Europe, Now It Is Your Turn to Act,” Amnesty International has strongly criticized EU governments for failing to offer resettlement to an estimated 5,000 refugees – who would face persecution or conflict if returned to their own countries.
“This failure is particularly glaring given that some European countries, by participating in NATO operations in Libya, have been party to the very conflict that has been one of the main causes of the involuntary movement of people,” said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty's European Institutions Office, in a press statement.
Stuck on the border with nowhere to go
There are approximately 1,000 people, including Eritreans, Ethiopians, Iraqis, Ivorians, Palestinians, Somalis and Sudanese, stranded at Egypt's Saloum border post while an additional 3,800 refugees are living in makeshift tents at the Choucha refugee camp near the Ras Jdir crossing on the Tunisian side of the border.
Libya: reports and analysis by France24
“On the Tunisian side, the refugees are hosted in camps in grim conditions. Tunisia does not have the resources to host these people for a long time,” said Francesca Pizzutelli, a researcher-advisor from Amnesty International’s Refugees and Migrants' Rights Team, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “In Egypt, the situation is equally bad, Saloum is a military base. The Egyptian government is refusing to allow refugees beyond the Saloum border post.”
While the US, Australia and Canada have offered to resettle some of the refugees, only eight EU nations – Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Ireland, Norway, Portugal and Sweden – have offered to help.
But between the eight EU nations, there are fewer than 700 slots available, according to the Amnesty report.
Blame the ‘murtazaka’
In a response to the report, a British government spokesperson told the BBC that, "In our view humanitarian and refugee issues are best dealt with in the region of origin, or by asylum-seekers claiming protection in the first safe country they reach."
But Pizzutelli dismissed the argument that the refugee situation can be tackled on a regional level. “It’s a very hypocritical argument because these people are not from the region. They are from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea…many of them don’t speak Arabic. They are from sub-Saharan Africa, which means they are black and they face serious racism,” she said. “It’s a way for European countries to wash their hands of the problem.”
The Libyan conflict has exacerbated existing racial tensions against foreigners – particularly of sub-Saharan origins – in the North African nation.
For more than a decade, Libyans watched with quiet exasperation as their former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, played the African stage – courting national and tribal leaders, interfering in regional conflicts, hiring mercenaries of foreign origins, and squandering Libya’s oil wealth in his quest for continental influence.
Following the anti-Gaddafi uprising, there were rumors that “murtazaka” – or mercenaries – employed by the Gaddafi family were committing some of the worst atrocities against rebel fighters.
While the word “murtazaka” literally means “mercenaries” in Arabic, in Libya the term has come to denote black African mercenaries from countries such as Chad and Niger.
There are no figures of how many foreign mercenaries Gaddafi had employed and no confirmed reports of excesses by murtazaka during the recent uprising have emerged.
‘Widespread reports’ of abuses against black Africans
But over the past few months, there have been reports of abuses against sub-Saharan Africans accused of being murtazaka.
A BBC report this week detailed cases of black Africans being beaten, robbed and their womenfolk raped by fighters allied to Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC).
According to Pizzutelli, Amnesty International has received “widespread reports of abuses of sub-Saharan Africans. Many people were beaten, robbed, there were testimonies of people seeing sub-Saharan Africans killed and their money, mobiles and other belongings confiscated at roadblocks.”
But Pizzutelli noted that it was “difficult to say if the abuses were linked to the National Transitional Council rebels or whether they were just private Libyans with arms taking advantage of the situation”.
The NTC leadership has consistently called for restraint from its fighters, urging them to avoid revenge attacks. But the NTC has varying levels of control over the different “brigades” fighting under its umbrella, with one renegade brigade even suspected of murdering a top rebel commander in July.
Heading back to catch the boat to Europe
The widespread reports of abuses against black Africans hardly make Libya an agreeable place to return to, and yet, Amnesty International says “more and more refugees” are coming back to Libya in order to try to board Europe-bound boats.
The perils of the sea journey from North Africa to Europe are well documented, with Amnesty International estimating that more than 1,500 people have died attempting the trip since the start of the conflict in Libya.
For many hapless refugees stuck in a no-man’s land between national borders, it’s a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea – quite literally. Given that Europe is the ultimate destination of the perilous sea journey, human rights activists say Brussels must act – and quickly.
"These people stranded on Libya's borders are between a rock and a hard place," said Beger. "It is time for the EU to shoulder responsibility for this crisis."
* Main photo copyright credit: Amnesty International
Date created : 2011-09-20